Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn || Produced by: Lene Borglum
Screenplay by: Nicolas Winding Refn || Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Ratha Phongam, Gordon Brown Tom Burke, Bryon Gibson
Music by: Cliff Martinez || Cinematography by: Larry Smith || Edited by: Matthew Newman || Country: Denmark, France || Language: English, Thai
Running Time: 90 minutes
Many of you may be familiar with Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film, Drive, also starring Ryan Gosling, a hyper-stylized, hyper-violent arthouse crime-thriller that received rave reviews and grossed over $76 million on a $15 million budget. It was like a glorious, gory, super-intelligent take on a Fast and the Furious (2001) flick, even though there wasn’t much actual driving in it. Needless to say, hype and expectations were high for Refn’s next film, but surprisingly to people who hadn’t much exposure to Refn’s filmography before Drive, both critics and fans were hugely divided on his follow-up feature, Only God Forgives (OGF), and critical love for the Danish filmmaker came to a screeching halt. I can see how one could come into OGF, having only seen Drive, and expect another accessible thriller like it. Hey, they both look stylish and colorful and have Gosling’s handsome mug plastered on their posters — how different could it be?
Still, I don’t understand everyone’s shocked response to this film. Apparently it simultaneously prompted boos, walkouts, and standing ovations at Cannes. Admittedly, I found the film to be pretty violent and rather bloody, but certainly no more so than Drive, let alone a Tarantino film. The film is not an accessible thriller like Drive, but it’s violence is no more “fetishized” or “exploitative” than anything Refn’s done before, and to that end I thought critics loved this sort of artsy, avant-garde type of narrative.
OGF follows the story of an American crime-syndicate operating in Bangkok, exploring the ins and outs of an extremely dysfunctional crime family who conjure the wrath of a retired cop and his team of “guardian angels.” The film features plenty of stunning visuals, slow-motion sequences, and character drama presented through psychedelic hallucinations and surrealist sequences. Plenty of death, drugs, hookers, family drama, and severed limbs follow.
Conversely, OGF is pure cinema. Nearly everything in the movie, its character motivations, arcs, and thematic motifs are executed entirely through visuals. Gosling has at most 15 lines of dialogue in the entire film, and many monologues are purposely censored or silenced. This film feels like an experimental or surrealist filmmaker’s wet dream. The film flows freely from reality to daydreams to nightmares, communicating ambiguity and narrative depth while maintaining total clarity in character development and story progression. I always understood what was going on in the movie at every moment, but at the same time I contemplated the film’s visuals and thematic content over and over once the film finished. I got the film immediately, but it left me imagining more and more. That’s good filmmaking.
OGF’s visuals and music are perfectly in sync. The film features one of the best soundtracks in recent memory, and every audio element supplements and builds upon the visuals, rather than distracting from them or acting as a cinematic crutch.
There are a few problems with the film, admittedly. The movie’s ending, while appropriate, would’ve been better suited with a satisfying full-circle epilogue reportedly cut from the story involving Gosling’s protagonist. I also wanted to see more of Kristin Scott Thomas as Gosling’s seedy, horribly Oedipal crime-mother. All in all, this film feels unnecessarily edited and truncated, which is a rare comment coming from yours truly.
Then again, I’m sure most critics and many audiences at Cannes wish this film had been edited into oblivion. I don’t get it, people — I spend hours each week studying experimental cinema and reading how violent genre cinema like crime dramas and westerns are supposedly beloved by film academia — this film seems to fit the bill. No, it’s not Drive, but I liked it almost as much as Drive and I applaud its visceral, colorful explosion of artistic, “beautifully filmed depravity.” You call this depravity? I call this cinema.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Refn orchestrates gorgeous, meaningful visuals with the help of cinematographer Larry Smith, which are further expounded by Cliff Martinez’s beautiful, ominous music. Only God Forgives‘ efficient, potent screenplay guides us through a disturbing but delicious crime drama that’s as gory as it is colorful and trippy. Gosling returns again as Refn’s stoic, handsome lead man, but it’s Kristin Scott Thomas and native Thai Vithaya Pansringarm who steal the show.
— However… Only God Forgives is incredibly short for no real reason, and a few extra scenes expanding upon Gosling’s and Thomas’ characters could’ve made the story that much richer.
? Ever challenged God to a fight?
I suspect some critics take it as a personal sleight when a director doesn’t do what they want him to do.
Same. I’ve officially disowned James Cameron since he decided to waste the rest of his filmmaking career with an Avatar tetralogy. It’s only fair.
He’s been possessed by the ghost of George Lucas!
I’m not saying that Cameron and Lucas have devolved into shallow, emotionless businessmen, but they’ve essentially devolved into shallow, emotionless businessmen.